West Berkshire Council: the first hundred days of the new 2023 administration

The new Lib Dem administration was sworn in or whatever the ceremony involved on 25 May, so it’s had just over a hundred days with their hands on the levers. This seemed like a good moment to reflect on what has and has not been accomplished. You can see the LD’s election manifesto here.

Ross Mackinnon, leader of WBC’s Conservatives (WBCC), had the same idea and sent round a press statement on 13 August which provided his party’s take on how things were going. I’ll have a quick run through this and then look at a few other points. Note that the election pledges in the first group are as quoted by the WBCCs in their statement.

Pledge: Cancelling the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) demands made to homeowners who made a mistake in their planning application process, and carrying out a full review of West Berkshire’s CIL process.”

The WBCCs claimed the charges have not been cancelled and no review announced.

I spoke to WBC’s Deputy Leader Jeff Brooks who told me a thorough examination of all CIL charges dating back to when the system was introduced in West Berkshire in 2015 was being conducted to see which ones might have been wrongly charged. I understand that there might be about fifteen (including the two very well-publicised cases in Kintbury and Upper Lambourn) but more work is needed. Clearly the Council wants to be careful about what precedents it sets. Progress is therefore being made.

As for the review, a tender has been sent out for external consultants to conduct an enquiry.

It’s also worth pointing out that this injustice – about which I’ve written many times since I first looked at it in December 2020 – developed and was allowed to continue under the previous Conservative administrations, which had the power to fix this at any time.

Pledge: “Keeping residents informed of changes in their local area by re-introducing neighbour notification letters for planning applications.”

The WBCCs suggest this is unnecessary as all legal obligations are met even since the letters stopped being sent in 2018 and that re-introduction would cost at least £100,000.

On 6 March, WBC’s planning portfolio holder Tony Vickers told me that “progress has been made on neighbour notification planning letters, although it may be towards end of this year before the first ones go out. The figures quoted by Conservatives are garbage however: I immediately asked officers to check. There will be no extra staff needed and almost all the work can be automated.”

The WBCC’s point about legal obligations may well be correct but the issue here – as, in a different way, with the above-mentioned CIL – is the extent to which a council wants to help and inform its residents.

Pledge: “Trialling an extension to pedestrianisation hours in Newbury town centre.”

The main WBCC point here is that the proposals (which have had to be paused because of roadworks and alleged delays at the DfT) are being conducted without consultation. In my view the best thing is just to trial this idea, which is already partly in place, and then ask people what they think, rather than the other way round.

I don’t think that WBCC’s comments that this project is the work of “anti-car ideologues” is at all fair and has a whiff of ULEZ fumes about it. Pedestrianisation schemes have been introduced or trialled in many towns and cities. I admit they’re frequently controversial as no one arrangement will be ideal for all the users. One is dealing, as in so many matters, with a quest for the least bad. Such trials are done under regulations known as experimental traffic orders. The clue’s in the name – it’s an experiment.

Pledges: “Immediately returning the grass at Faraday Road to bookable football space” and “Cancelling the plans to deliver the clubhouse and stands at the Monks Lane “Sports Hub” and investigating the best options for the delivery of a new 3G pitch in the district.”

(The second manifesto pledge actually reads “cancelling the wasted £10m the Conservatives are planning to spend on the Monks Lane “Sports Hub”, keeping the plan for a 3G pitch but ending the waste on the clubhouse, stands and ongoing payment to the rugby club.”)

These are two separate pledges joined at the hip. As with many of the above, I’ve written about this many times. The WBCCs – which started this disastrous ball rolling in June 2018 by closing the Faraday Road ground without any clear plan as to was going to happen next – claim that the old pitch is “unsuitable for use” and that the proposed one at Monks Lane is a “good and popular idea.”

Both points have some merit: Faraday Road as it is currently is not a long-term solution while Monks Lane has some advantages (though these are currently more sporting than commercial). Also, the area badly needs more pitches.

Jeff Brooks told me that “we have good plans in place to create a 3G pitch, stands and a conference centre” at Faraday Road. As for Monks Lane, that might not be dead and the planning permission remains in place.

Pledge: “Taking a grown up approach to politics, listening to alternative voices and welcoming inputs from all sides”.

This is subjective and anyway it’s early days. A trick was missed in the way praise for the Lido was meted out. Other initiatives, such as the community forums, have started.

It’s also worth picking out a few more, which were not referred to by the WBCCs and which have some progress that can be measured now. All the pledges have been copied from the Lib Dem manifesto.

Pledge: Not imposing Non-Disclosure Agreements (“gagging orders”) on our service-level agreements with local charities, as the Conservatives unreasonably did with ReadiBus.

Again, this is a matter I’ve referred to many times. The clause were insisted upon for reasons that were never explained in order to solve a problem that did not exist. Indeed, the opposite happened: by generating negative publicity this caused exactly the problem the clauses were designed to prevent. The new administration has started to re-build the badly damaged relationship with the community transport company that has been assisting residents with mobility problems for about forty years.

A spokesperson for Readibus told Penny Post on 7 September that “the swift removal of any requirement to sign a gagging clause as a condition of charity grant funding has been a very welcome and positive step towards a reset of relations. We are hopeful of and look forward to constructive discussions with WBC in the near future.” Well, at last

Pledge: “Re-establishing kerbside recycling of green waste without cost to residents, by phasing out the “Green Bin Tax”, starting with those most in need of support.”

The WBCCs think this is a bad idea. I agree. (I also prefer the WBCC’s term “green bin charge” as it’s only paid by people who want to use the service.) It produces £1m+ of revenue, which is needed all the more in these tight times. I don’t see why people who don’t have a garden should subsidise the collection of the green waste of people who do. This policy may or may not be implemented in full, or at all.

Pledge: “Using the power of the Council to hold Thames Water to account over continued sewage discharges into our watercourses, blocked sewers and leaks in our district.”

I’m not sure how much power the Council has here. The government and reulators don’t seem to have much. WBC has at least arranged for representatives of Thames Water and the Environment Agency to attend the Oversight and Scrutiny Committee on 11 October.

Pledge: “Ensuring an opposition party councillor chairs the Council’s scrutiny committee, unlike the last 18 years of Conservative rule.”

This has happened. The Chair is not, as the WBCCs might have hoped, one of their own but the Green Party Councillor, Carolyne Culver. This was a shrewd choice. Many matters the committee considers have their origins in the previous (Conservative) administration/s, so having a chair from that party would only be to replace one perceived partiality with another. All appear to agree that she’s doing an excellent job.

Pledge: “Re-establishing community forums to pro-actively invite residents input and feedback at inperson meetings. Committing to report back on our resulting action plan within four weeks of each meeting.”

This has also happened, the first one (covering the above-mentioned Faraday Road) having met on 17 August. The promised report needs to have been published by 14 September if the second part of the pledge is to be ticked off.

Pledge: “Opening advisory groups to public scrutiny rather than the secretive Conservative approach.”

Anything that happens behind closed doors and can’t be reported or discussed could be called “secret”: but “secretive” conveys the impression of all this plus something underhand, which I don’t think was ever the case.

These are being opened up as promised, the Environment one (EAG) having had its first meeting under the new arrangements on 31 July. Transport (TAG) is expected to follow at its first meeting. Planning (PAG)  may take a little longer as there are confidential commercial matters relating to the local plan which will be discussed.

There is a case for keeping them private, one of which is that matters can be discussed freely without fear of misrepresentation or misunderstanding. This was certainly proved after the EAG meeting in July, which many people wrongly believed had announced a new policy of having black bins collected only every three or four weeks. This was not what was decided: indeed, nothing was decided as deciding things is not what advisory groups do. They just kick ideas around. The difference is that this now happens in public.

This aspect should have been made clear beforehand. If something has changed, you need to explain exactly how and why lest people come to their own, perhaps incorrect, conclusions.

Pledge: “Fixing the flawed local plan.”

Finally, the big one. The WBCCs and, I presume, the many officers who worked so hard on it, believed that the local plan was not flawed. Just about everyone else believed that it was in so far as it it applied to NE Thatcham. There seemed little else that was divisive.

The plan was, unfortunately, submitted to the Planning Inspectorate ijust before the election. Trying to get it back is a bit like asking a teacher to return homework they’re about to start marking as you’ve just thought of something else. This question has been asked. The Inspectors have come back with 77 questions of their own to establish what WBC wants to change. The Inspector will then decide if this can happen without the whole thing unravelling and needing to be re-started (which would probably not be permitted).

And finally from the blues…

WBCC Leader Ross Mackinnon added that “The Liberal Democrats ran their election campaign making promises that we knew they wouldn’t be able to keep – probably thinking they wouldn’t have to.” I think they had a pretty good idea they’d get elected, though probably not by quite such a margin.

“This recklessness has backfired as they now have thousands of residents who expect them to deliver their promises,” he continued. Surely, all the residents demand this? I think it’s too early to say if any have backfired.

“All we have seen so far,” he added, “is backtracking [and] underdelivering.” As the above points show, there are certainly problems but many things have been started. As for “backtracking”, this is not only another word for “retreat”: it’s also what you do when you realise you’re on the wrong path. A bit more backtracking by the previous administrations over Faraday Road, CIL, Readibus and NE Thatcham wouldn’t have been a bad idea.

…and from the Greens

We also asked David Marsh, the Leader of the Green group at WBC, for his views. “We would have hoped to see a little more humility from Councillor Mackinnon,” he replied, “given the mess the Conservatives left to clear up and the local-government funding crisis which is a direct result of the government’s austerity policies that Ross and his colleagues supported.

“It’s particularly disappointing to see the cynical way the Tories have jumped on the anti-ULEZ bandwagon, given that they commissioned and championed the report that called for an end to through-traffic in the town centre.

“As for the Liberal Democrats, when you will promise anything to get votes, it’s hardly surprising if some of those promises are hard to live up to. We were astonished by the Lib Dem U-turn on hedgehog highways, which they had initially supported. But, to be fair, they carried out their pledge to elect an opposition councillor to chair the Scrutiny Commission, which my colleague Councillor Carolyne Culver is doing brilliantly. That’s one more positive achievement in 100 days than the Tories managed in four years.

“Given the state of the finances, which is entirely the fault of the previous Conservative administration, let’s give the Lib Dems a bit more time before leaping to judgment.”

That seems a suitable note on which to leave matters.

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